Relationship Fundraising needs a brand re-fresh. How about Engagement Fundraising?

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

“An organiser’s job is to help ordinary people do extraordinary things” – Cesar Chavez, US Farm workers’ Leader

The first time I met my fundraising guru Ken Burnett (and I mean, the first time he actually spoke to me), was in Heathrow baggage hall after an International Fundraising Convention, many years ago (my days of being a young up-start are over). Star-struck I introduced myself. “So you’re the one doing great things at Oxfam”, he said to me. Well, as part of a great team of others, yes, I suppose I was. Because we were.  What a moment. I didn’t wash my shaken-hand for a week.

Relationship Fundraising wasn’t a toolkit, it was a mindset. Putting the supporter first? Not necessarily. But thinking about them, all the time. Who they are. What they’re interested in. What makes them tick. What they’ll respond to. How they behave. And how to make them love me (as in, my charity, obviously).

So I’ve been rather perplexed over the last couple of months to realise that some took it all a bit too literally over the years, leaving the fundraising sector with something of an identity crisis, and perhaps even a crisis of confidence. Isn’t it all about the money? Aren’t we fundraisers, which means raising funds? Well, yes. And no. Margaux Smith and Rory Green kicked off right here at 101fundraising, teasing out what turned out to be violent agreement. “Relationship vs. Results” vs. “Relationship for Results”?

people-tkAnd then another fundraising guru, Jeff Brooks, takes just a few lines to explain what fundraising is really about (it’s not money). Holey Moley! Then UK Institute of Fundraising launches a big Proud to be a Fundraiser campaign, with Ian MacQuillin leading the charge complaining of fundraisers who can’t be “just fundraisers”. (I’m one of those, though I’m still a proud one).

Of course fundraising is about the money. And of course it’s not just about the money. We’re in the business of inspiring people to make a difference in the world, and most will choose to do that by giving money. What’s the big deal? And of course it’s about the supporter but not just about the relationship and donor choice, because we know people don’t behave how they say they will. Why reduce it all to a dull extractive transaction anyway? There are certainly stupid extremes of charities letting supporters choose not to hear from you ever again, as though getting fundraising pack through the door was worse than dog-mess.

If you hide behind the relationship question and dismiss fundraising under the guise of donor care (OMG, we’ve had some complaints, stop what you’re doing), you’re not going to get very far. And nor is your cause.

But then the truth is all this talk of donor relationships is a bit deluded, isn’t it? Have you ever met anyone who talks of being in a relationship with a charity? Do you talk that way? No. There’s not one organisation I give to – and there are a couple I’ve been doing that for over 25 years – where I’d say I had a relationship with them. They might wish for that, but they can dream on. Because they still mess up my data, irritate me from time to time, decide that as a monthly donor giving no cash I might as well be stripped out of the newsletter cycle (why waste the money, right?).  Sometimes I feel I support in spite of them. Because it’s not them I support, it’s the cause.

What we’re talking about here is our desperate puppy-love. Which in the true experience of a teenage crush is unrequited! Of course supporters don’t love you back. Hold on to the mind-set, but get over it.

In the end, that is a problem with the Relationship thing. It’s about YOU. It’s what you want. Not what the supporter wants.

And so to Engagement Fundraising. We know that for people to give, to do anything, frankly, they need to be interested, concerned, willing and, well, engaged. And the more engaged they feel – emotional reward, feedback, recognition, satisfaction – the more they’ll stay engaged. Not with you, but with the cause.

So engage on their terms. It carries all the strength of what Relationship Fundraising always meant. Without the misunderstood baggage. People don’t want a relationship, but they do like to feel involved, they want to do stuff that’s interesting and engaging. Engage them to take action. Keep people engaged to take action. Give them something to do besides money, but on the whole, let that action be giving money.

I give you Engagement Fundraising.

P.S. If you’re still looking for a relationship with your supporter and I haven’t persuaded you it’s a lost cause, here’s the truest Fundraiser’s Love Song. Ever.

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Jo Swinhoe · July 1, 2014 at 07:15

How right you are. Too many times have heard fundraisers tell me exactly what they would approach a donor for, what they would say, what materials they would use…. And neve once ask what the donor may want from the relationship with the charity. If I would change on thing, I would suggest empathic engagement fundraising.. The way forward. Great stuff Matthew.

Derek Glass · July 2, 2014 at 02:25

Thank you very much for writing this. You are certainly not alone in thinking that Relationship Fundraising is a fundamentally flawed theory of fundraising. There is still an important aspect missing from your critique however, and that is the charity’s beneficiaries, the cause.

Relationship Fundraising is almost entirely devoid of any discussion about a charity’s cause, and that is its’ fundamental flaw. Donors do not give money to fundraisers, they give money to causes. A charity’s beneficiaries are the focus of donor’s who give money, they are the focus of program staff, and they are always the #1 focus of the CEO and the charity’s trustees.

Yet, many so-called “relationship fundraisers”, particularly those who build careers working for one NGO to the next, often treat the charity’s cause as a “fill in the blank” technicality. They go about their business “focused on the donor”, while everyone else in the organisation (including the donors) are actually focused on the cause.

And then, frustrated, these fundraisers go around blogging and complaining about how trustees and other stakeholders “don’t get it”.

Relationship fundraisers often lament that nobody “gets it” except them, and lately the fashionable argument has been that charity trustees in particular don’t “get it”. But, is the problem really that the everyone else doesn’t “get it”? Or is there a problem with the theory itself? I (and many others) believe the latter is the case.

    Matthew Sherrington · July 2, 2014 at 08:48

    Thanks Derek, though to be clear, I don’t think Relationship Fundraising is fundamentally flawed, as you put it. I think its mean misunderstood and misinterpreted, and as with a lot of things that have been around for 20 years, needs a bit of an update! The central idea is that supporters matter to an organisation; that treating them right builds loyalty (in my language, engagement), and fundamentally, that is cost effective because it’s cheaper than finding new supporters. From my time fundraising in the US, “churn and burn” is still very much alive and kicking.

    Your point about the cause is well made and I fully agree. My approach is that engagement is all about connecting people to the cause. It’s often the organisation and its ego that gets in the way. “It’s not about you” is a good reminder to everyone communicating about their charity.

    I have to say I do think it’s the fundraiser’s job to focus on the donor. That’s the job, in the same way that operational people focus on delivery of the mission work. That doesn’t mean just focusing on mailing preferences, but precisely what you get at – understanding what makes them tick, engaging them with the mission in the best way you can. I despair of technique-only fundraising that doesn’t do that.

    The challenge you speak of about people not getting it about fundraising is real. For many people, it’s understandable, why should they? But for CEOs and Trustees, I’d say they have a responsibility to all their stakeholders and that includes supporters. Otherwise charities end up treating them like ATMs, just extracting the cash, which shows a lack of respect they would never show to beneficiaries.

    Engaging people to connect them to the cause – I’m sure that’s something we would agree on!

      Derek Glass · July 2, 2014 at 12:21

      Hi Michael, how do you measure loyalty? I measure it by the number of times someone donates, and if they keep donating over and over again. I measure donor loyalty using the net present value or lifetime value of a donor, using properly discounted future cash flows as the basis for that measurement.

      Donor loyalty is a number. It’s not a merit badge you get for “engaging” donors, or having some kind of “good” relationship with them. It well and truly is a financial calculation.

      The more a donor donates, and the more often they donate, the more loyal they are. The less they donate, and the less often they donate, the less loyal they are. When someone writes you a cheque, that’s “feedback”. Exactly the kind of feedback that helps a charity the most.

      And that’s where Relationship Fundraising falls over completely. It does not increase measurable loyalty.

      You mentioned “US churn and burn” fundraising. First, I think that’s an insulting term, and a chauvinistic if not racist one as well. American fundraising strategies, particularly techniques that are based on classic direct marketing, do raise more money. They generate donors who give more, and more often. And they maximize donor value over the long run. Those strategies work.

      You can call it churn and burn if you want. But it works better than so called “engagement” or “relationship” fundraising. And as long as those strategies work better, they will continue. That’s why it’s “not going away”, as you’ve lamented above. And I am certain it never will. Because it does work better.

        Matthew · July 2, 2014 at 14:45

        Racist? Wow, well that’s a long way removed from a discussion on fundraising. I won’t bother replying further, except to say that yes, engagement is about involving people so they give more, for longer. Others can judge between your argument and mine Keep taking the tablets, Derek. My name’s Matthew by the way.

          Derek Glass · July 2, 2014 at 18:09

          Your comment about “US churn and burn” fundraising is certainly chauvinist. Whether it is racist, well, if you’re an American like me it certainly sounds that way. And as any diversity trainer will tell you, it’s not your intention that matters, it’s how it sounded to the person you said it to that matters. And when I read that, as an American, it does sound racist.

          And as for the remark about “tablets”, that’s even more offensive. I’m not crazy for calling you out on your prejudice. You are the one who has the problem.

Diana Lee · July 2, 2014 at 08:49

Great topic, Matthew. I never thought, though, responding to another comenter, that relationship fundraising was not about the organization’s cause/mission/impact. It was always about listening to the donor and figuring out what aspects of the org’s work were most important to the prospect/donor. As a wise colleague once said to me: Our donors are so important to us, we sometimes forget that we’re not THAT important to them.

    Matthew Sherrington · July 2, 2014 at 08:53

    LOVE that!

Rachel · July 2, 2014 at 09:33

Great post, Matthew and I couldn’t agree more.

For very similar reasons, I have been using “engagement fundraising” for a few years, which led me to write this post on here back in 2012, also referencing relationship fundraising gone wrong: https://101fundraising.org/2012/08/make-loyal-donors-not-war/

Here’s an excerpt:

‘A few years ago, I began to feel uncomfortable using that kind of terminology. It just didn’t sound right anymore in the 21st Century, when most consumers have the web at their fingertips, are accustomed to realtime experiences on Twitter and Facebook and can share their thoughts and feelings, good and bad, on an unprecedented scale…

So I started instead to talk about “engaging donors” and “engagement fundraising”, and asking, “Why would anyone want to pay attention to this? Why is it interesting? What would encourage someone to share it with their friends?”

Finding new ways of expressing the work I did seemed to resonate more with the irrevocable fact that our supporters are people with feelings, are intelligent enough to know when they are not genuinely valued…’

For me, it was switching to digital in a big way in about 2008 that was a turning point – and I’ve channelled so much from digital fundraising and engagement back into my fundraising practice as a result. I started to find the language of trad direct marketing felt all wrong and couldn’t bring myself to use it anymore. I did get some funny looks sometimes and from time to time, I’d be asked, “what’s the point in engagement – we want money”, but I have proven over and over again that one leads to another. Seems silly to have to say it, really – it seems so obvious and it has never really been any other way, regardless of the medium. But, for me, framing what we do in different terms can only help to encourage people to turn the way they think about it, and approach it, on its head.

    Matthew Sherrington · July 2, 2014 at 11:37

    Thanks Rachel! Yes, the best bit about innovation, no such thing as a new idea! ;-)

    Like you, I’ve been talking Engagement for years, particularly from 2003 when I started at Greenpeace USA. Even there I was asked what it was all about. But results proved my point. Retention rates sky-rocketed, and Target Analytics in their benchmarking put it down to our engagement approach. Very proud of that.

Craig Linton · July 2, 2014 at 18:46

Hi Matthew,

I’ve got to disagree with you and many of the commenters.

I believe the argument you are making is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what relationship fundraising is meant to be.

The problem starts as you are confusing the meaning of the word relationship. Your argument that not everyone wants a relationship with a non-profit would be a valid one if you take too literal a definition of ‘relationship’ and compare it to that of husband and wife, brother and sister etc.

This is not what is meant by relationship fundraising.

The definition of relationship that must be used is much looser. A relationship exists (whether you like it or not) from the moment a donor or potential donor interacts with your non-profit.

The OED defines “relationship” as “the way in which two or more people or things are connected, or the state of being connected”.

By that definition if you donate to a charity then you have a relationship with it. This relationship can be short or long term, deep or shallow, close or distant.

Any relationship starts with engagement. This is clear in the original Relationship Fundraising. The fundraiser’s job is to make sure that the first engagement leaves a good impression and makes the donor want to continue to support your cause or takes him or her a step closer to making a first donation.

You say you don’t want a relationship with the charities you support, but at the same time you get irritated by some of them. That would indicate that there is a connection between you and therefore a relationship.

It might help to think of engagement as acquisition and then relationship as donor development. To my mind they are two sides of the same coin.

If you look at how business thinking has developed around loyalty and customer experience, then I think Relationship Fundraising has never been more important. There is clear evidence that companies with high customer experience scores generate higher profits. The work Donor Voice have done around loyalty clearly shows this also applies to the charity world.

I find it surprising how often the key messages in Relationship Fundraising are misrepresented. At the core of relationship fundraising is a simple principle.

If you treat people with respect, listen to their needs, respond appropriately, show gratitude and give them great feedback on what their donation is achieving, then people will give you more time and money in the long run.

Don’t let bad fundraisers and poor application of the theory distract from this fundamental fact. In my view relationship fundraising is fine as it is and the last thing the sector needs is another buzzword. We’d be better off spending time on getting relationship fundraising right and raising as much money as we can for the causes we work for.

If you’re at IoF Convention next week then would be delighted to engage and continue the discussion over a beer!

All the best, Craig

    Matthew Sherrington · July 2, 2014 at 22:09

    Thanks Craig.
    I’m not sure I see a fundamental disagreement at all. We risk violently agreeing. I think the precise definition of “relationship” is semantics, to be honest. Where a lot of people have gone wrong is exactly taking it too literally, as you point out, which is my point in pulling back a bit and suggesting a different way at looking at it. Reverting to dictionary definition when what we’re dealing with is how people perceive and have understood it, doesn’t necessarily help. Surely it’s the mindset of engaging people, keeping them excited about the cause and motivated to continue that matters? I don’t get the distinction of engagement being acquisition, and relationship the development. in my book, it matters that all we do is engaging, all the time. Otherwise, the relationship, which is pretty one-sided in the emotional sense, will get a bit stale.

    And a new buzz word? No, I’m not after that either. Back to basics, the essentials of Relationship Fundraising: thinking about and connecting with the supporter, engaging them to excite them, respecting them, absolutely, and all with the purpose of helping them stay involved and do more for longer. Of course it’s good as it is. But let’s be honest, it’s been around a long time, and as we’re experiencing, it seems to be misunderstood. So do we bang on the same way, or talk about it slightly differently?

    Yes, see you at IoF!

    Derek Glass · July 3, 2014 at 02:47

    The definition of relationship fundraising that “must” be used is much “looser”. How loose? And “buzzwords” are bad? Therefore we should just accept the flawed theory we have? I don’t agree.

    The book Relationship Fundraising starts with several pages describing classic direct marketing in highly derogatory terms. It’s those first pages that paint a picture of classic direct marketing as an almost evil activity. It’s “churn and burn”, it treats donor’s like ATMs. And that the people who practice classic direct marketing are bad people.

    Then it goes on to assert that every person at every level of any charity must blindly believe in relationship fundraising, or they should be eliminated from the organisation. The entire first chapter of the book is built around creating an image of classic direct marketing as a sinful practice that must be purged, banished, and replaced with people professing blind faith in relationship fundraising.

    The second chapter of the book then presents the Botton Farm “case study”, which involved reducing the frequency of solicitation from several times a year, to once a year, which then increased the response rate for the one appeal that was sent.

    This case study had no control group. No other strategy was tested against it. It did not measure the net income of several appeals versus one appeal, it simply concluded that if you mail one appeal a year, you get a 50%+ response rate. Which is higher than any single response rate when you mail four to eight appeals a year.

    This methodologically flawed test completely ignored the fact that a 10% response rate times 8 appeals a year is cumulatively an 80% response rate, and that you raise more money that way.

    Relationship fundraising makes a mockery multivariate testing methodology, of net-present value modelling and financial analysis. And as a result, it stunts the fundraising performance of many charities.

    The latest trend among so-called relationship fundraisers is to complain and whinge that CEO’s, CFO’s and the trustees of charities fail to understand or support the work of relationship fundraisers. That is a big problem, but it is relationship fundraising’s problem, not the CEOs or the trustees.

    These leaders in our sector (and yes, they are in charge at the end of the day) do indeed often fail to get the financial logic of relationship fundraising, because there is so much that is financially illogical about it.

    And that is why classic direct marketing is alive and well and widely practiced by many charities today. After 2 decades of sustained ridicule and attack by relationship fundraisers as “churn and burn”, it still works better.

Ken Burnett · July 3, 2014 at 14:10

Matthew, thanks as always for a healthy, robust debate, which is always good to have.

Derek, also sadly as always in my experience, you spout nonsense by the yard, which may help sell my books but otherwise is generally unedifying.

Shortly after my book was published in 1992 a fringe meeting sprang up unscheduled at the IoF Convention, attended by hundreds, more than most of the sessions. I stood at the back, fascinated by the scale and breadth of debate that my book seemed to have provoked.

Mostly, the debate centred on how we might improve the donor experience. That’s still a debate worth having, so I’m pleased that all these years later, we’re still having it so vigorously. For sure, there’s work still to be done.




    Derek Glass · July 5, 2014 at 04:51

    And once again Ken, you completely dodged the questions raised, and dismissed them as “nonesense”. The questions I raise are quite sensible, and relevant. And there is only so long you can rest on your laurels, and smugly brush them aside.

Carsten Direske · July 14, 2014 at 22:18

I don’t think we have to go harsh discussing two sides of the same coin. From my point of view, it’s more a question of how we “live” it in the end and not how we name it. You can do it under the banner of direct marketing and still take care of giving not just being “transactional” but engaging and paving the way for your people to support their causes. And you can do it under banner of relationship or engagement fundraising, too while not ignoring metrics, key performance indicators and returns on investment.
However, talking about measures, what’s right for the one organisation can be wrong for another. While the one depends on ten major donors, another on the end-of-the-year-christmas-charity-rallye and yet others on crowdraising-type small scale donations, thousands of volunteers standing in, a bunch of people keeping a local project alive or 25 bloggers multiplying an urgent campaign.
The one thing we all have in common: We are all depend on people giving and what never can be wrong: a thank-you-very-much straight from the heart which can take different forms ranging from a letter, email or phone call to a programme of entrusting people with more responsibilities, education and participation – all boosting “You matter”.

Gregory Warner · September 19, 2016 at 15:00

I just came across this recently and appreciate your post Matthew.

Here’s my diatribe written on the same subject (Engagement Fundraising) back in March of 2014.

I figured you might like it!


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